Former U.S elite gymnast Maggie Nichols revealed Tuesday in a statement that she was sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar when she sought treatment for back problems in 2013. She was 15 at the time. Nichols is the fourth recent national team member to come forward accusing Nassar, joining Olympic gold medalists McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, and is one of more than 140 people who have filed civil lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused by Nassar between 1992 and 2016. Until today, Nichols was listed as Jane A68 Doe in a federal civil suit and was named anonymously in another report.
Nassar, who worked with the U.S. gymnastics team from 1986 to 2015, is in jail after being sentenced in November to 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges. He will be sentenced in the first of two state cases for criminal sexual conduct later this week.
In a statement on Tuesday, Nichols wrote:
“But when I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch. This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred. My back was really hurting me, I couldn’t even really bend down, and I remember he took me into the training room, closed the door and closed the blinds. At the time I thought this was kind of weird but figured it must be okay. I thought he probably didn’t want to distract the other girls and I trusted him.
I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.
He did this “treatment” on me, on numerous occasions.
Not only was Larry Nassar my doctor, I thought he was my friend. He contacted me on Facebook complimenting me and telling me how beautiful I looked on numerous occasions. But I was only 15 and I just thought he was trying to be nice to me. Now I believe this was part of the grooming process I recently learned about.”
According to court filings and interviews, it was Nichols and her coach, Sarah Jantzi, who reported Nassar to USA Gymnastics officials on June 17, 2015, after the coach overheard Maggie and another gymnast talking about Nassar’s behavior. Maggie showed Jantzi the Facebook messages and told her about the treatment she had received from Nassar. Jantzi reported her concerns to USA Gymnastics women’s program director Rhonda Faehn and to Maggie’s mother, Gina.
According to the complaint, then–USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny “discouraged [Gina and John Nichols, Maggie’s parents] from reporting Nassar’s conduct to law enforcement and pressured them to keep the matter quiet.”
“I got a phone call probably the next day [from] Steve Penny,” Gina told SI. “He called me, I don’t know how many times, to talk to me about it and make sure that I understood they were taking care of it. When I have the president of USA Gymnastics telling me what to do, he’s in a position of power over me. We’ve given our whole family up to get our daughter to this point and [when] I have Steve Penny telling me this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to be quiet, I’m going to listen to him. I’m not going to jeopardize my daughter’s chance of going to the Olympics."
Maggie was a front-runner for the Olympic team until a torn meniscus took her out of contention in the spring of 2016. She made it back to compete at nationals and Olympic Trials in 2016 but ultimately was not named to the team for Rio. She announced her retirement from elite gymnastics on July 13, 2016.
Says John Nichols, “After Maggie reported [in June of 2015], we were told to be quiet, don’t say anything to anybody, that USA Gymnastics was going to handle it. Later on, we would ask what’s happening and they’d say they were contacting the FBI. I was led to believe that the FBI was going to be handling this.” In a statement, USA Gymnastics wrote that the organization "kept the matter confidential because of the FBI's directive not to interfere with the investigation."
Sometime between June 21 and July 2, USA Gymnastics brought on Fran Sepler, an expert on workplace harassment with experience interviewing children in sexual assault cases, to interview Maggie. “I was not hired as an investigator,” says Sepler. “I was only asked to conduct several interviews by US Gymnastics, who indicated they were conducting an investigation into allegations and needed someone who was a skilled interviewer. I did not decide who to speak to and did not provide any advice or recommendations except that law enforcement needed to be involved.” However, in its statement today, USA Gymnastics wrote that the organization “hired an experienced, independent investigator to speak with [Maggie] and others…. The information that Maggie and later a second athlete provided was important, but did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred.”
Says John Nichols, “When the Fran Sepler interview was arranged, I was under the impression that this was the FBI investigator. We were never told who she was, what her position was and so we thought it was part of the FBI investigation.” For her part, Sepler denies telling the Nichols family that she was with law enforcement or that she was an investigator.
In a statement to SI, Penny’s lawyers said, “The matter was reported to the FBI on Monday, July 27, 2015, and [chairman of USA Gymnastics] Mr. Parilla and Mr. Penny met with the FBI on July 28. Thereafter, USAG facilitated interviews with athletes and families for the FBI. USAG was told by the FBI that it was the appropriate agency for the report.”
Says Sepler, “I was assured that the FBI had been notified of these matters and had no reason not to believe it. I was subsequently debriefed by the FBI. I was also told that Nassar was not in any contact with athletes during the several weeks I did the interviews.”
Nassar was on the faculty at Michigan State University and saw patients there, but USA Gymnastics did not contact MSU or the Michigan-based gymnastics club Twistars whose athletes were also treated by Nassar. The national governing body is currently contending in court that it did not have a responsibility to inform either MSU or Twistars of allegations against Nassar.
The Nichols family says it was not contacted by the FBI until July 2016, nearly a year after Maggie had come forward to USA Gymnastics and a year after USA Gymnastics says it reported the allegations to the FBI in Indianapolis. Maggie was contacted just days before the 2016 Olympic Trials by an FBI agent at the Los Angeles field office. She was interviewed after the competition concluded. Says Penny’s lawyers in a statement, “The FBI transferred the matter to another jurisdiction and as time passed there was concern, since USAG had not received any updates from the FBI. Mr. Penny and Mr. Parillo contacted and met with the FBI in Los Angeles in April 2016.
At least 19 people whose treatment occurred between the time Maggie spoke to USA Gymnastics and the time she was interviewed by the FBI have filed civil complaints against Nassar.
Requests for material from the FBI on the Nassar case through the Freedom of Information Act were denied by the Bureau because “disclosure of law enforcement records concerning a third-party individual [Nassar] would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Just before the 2016 P&G national championships in June 2016, Gina recalls Penny pulling her aside and saying, “I just want to let you know that Maggie was abused, but she wasn’t the worst one.” Said Penny’s lawyers to SI: “Steve has no recollection of any conversation with any family member on this topic at the P&G championships in St. Louis.”
Maggie’s lawyer, John Manly, said in a statement yesterday, “I think the worst thing about this case is the absolute effort by USA Gymnastics to deceive that family, to silence that family and without any regard for how that was going to affect that child.”
In her statement, Maggie wrote, “Up until now, I was identified as Athlete A by USA gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee and Michigan State University. I want everyone to know that [Nassar] did not do this to Athlete A, he did it to Maggie Nichols.”